Sorry not sorry (or, neither a borrower nor a lender be)

I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books. This is because I agree with Stewart Lee that, whatever the merits of JK Rowling’s work (and no doubt there are many), fundamentally the Harry Potter books are children’s books. I am not a child, nor do I have any children to read them to. The first book was published when I was already too old for it; I was at an age when, among other things, Alias Grace, Knowledge of Angels, Madame Bovary, Great Expectations, Rites of Passage, Lolita and Jane Eyre were more satisfying to me. I also read the whole of Wordsworth’s Prelude and the preface to Lyrical Ballads. I loathe Wordsworth from the depths of my soul, and yet I read the whole of the Prelude and the preface to Lyrical Ballads, and then I read Lyrical Ballads itself and all the other stuff we were required to read for A-level English Literature, because we were asked to do so.[1] As you’ll see in a moment, a troubling sense of misplaced obligation looms large in my reading choices the moment other people get involved in them.

Despite being too old for a children’s book (and seventeen is far, far too old to be reading a children’s book. If you’re experimenting with sex, recreational drugs and Christianity by day, reading about a pre-pubescent wizard by night is downright perverted), several of my coevals apparently forgot that we were all very nearly grown-ups about to be unleashed upon the world of higher education. I was badgered regularly by a friend who had read Harry Potter and the Prisoner’s Dilemma and thought I should do the same. No, I said. There are far too many grown-up books I’d rather read. He said, you don’t want to read it because it’s too long. No, I said. I’ve read War and Peace, Life and Fate and The Name of the Rose. I’ve read all the books in The Fortunes of War sequence and all of A Dance to the Music of Time.[2] I like big books, and I cannot lie. He said, I haven’t heard of any of those books. Oh dear, I said. I should shut up about books if I were you. Well, he said, as the point of the conversation thundered by him like a hungry Megalosaurus, if you like big books, you’ll like Harry Potter and the Pottery of Harr. No, I said. I’m too old for it. I will find it childish, which is not a fair criticism to make of a children’s book, but I will feel that way nonetheless because I’m not a child. He said, don’t be silly. You’ve already decided to hate it. No, I said. I’ve already decided that I’m a grown-up, and this book is not for grown-ups. He said, there’s nothing wrong with adults reading children’s books. No, I said. There’s everything wrong with adults reading children’s books, unless you are reading them to a child. It reduces your attention span. It removes your ability to respond to intellectual challenges, long sentences and complex ideas. Reading is one of the great pleasures of human existence, and you are trying to take that away from me by making me a read a book that cannot possibly satisfy me and was never intended to. If I had read it as a child and had happy memories that might be re-captured by re-reading it (as one might expect from re-reading 101 Dalmations, The Voyage of the Dawn-Treader, or, in a fit of irony, The Borrowers), fine, but I didn’t read it as a child and I don’t want to read it now.

He said, you’re a terrible snob. You don’t like it because it’s popular. You don’t read magazines because you think they’re sexist, and now you think you’re above reading anything popular. Fuck off, I said. First of all, I didn’t say I didn’t like it. I can’t dislike a book I haven’t read; I’m simply not going to read it. Secondly, I do read magazines (by which I meant Vagina Monthly, the only non-sexist magazine available in the late 1990s, which I had to buy from the cornershop in my head). Thirdly, I read popular stuff all the time. I read all the Sherlock Holmes stories last winter.[3] I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which sold millions of copies. I read (and re-read) about 80% of the novels of (famously best-selling author) Dick Francis. I’ve read everything Terry Pratchett ever wrote, and he’s wildly popular.[4] He said, stop using books I haven’t heard of as examples. No, I said. I will use whatever examples I like in this conversation, which you initiated. You like this book because it’s literally the only book you’ve read for pleasure in your life. You’re not recommending Harry Potter and the Whatever of Meh to me because you enjoyed reading that book or because you think I’ll enjoy reading that book. You’re recommending it to me because it gave you an experience of reading that was actually fun, and that’s rare for you because you don’t read, and I’m happy for you that you finally had a good reading experience, but I don’t think it is specific to this book and I am not reading this book or any other just because you think I should. You don’t read. You know nothing about books. I do read and I know about books, and I can choose a book for myself without any help from you.

This dreary ding-dong went on for four years, long after we had left school. Eventually, I hit upon a solution, which I recommend to anyone who finds their friends boorishly and dogmatically trying to make them read a book they have no interest in; it’s brutal, but they won’t ever force a book on you again. I said, fine. I will read your children’s book. You will lend it to me, and I will read it. In exchange, I will lend you a grown-up’s book of roughly equivalent length, and you will read that. He said, fine. Thus did two people who claimed to like each other conspire in and commit to a pointless exercise in a shared spirit of self-righteousness and spite.

Let me be clear: I did absolutely did not want to read Harry Potter and the Demple of Toom, but I always read any book that has been loaned to me right to the end.[5] This is because, firstly, if someone lends me a book, I assume that they are doing so specifically because they think I will derive pleasure from the reading thereof. Secondly, I am attempting to show that I expect my friends to be able to choose a book that is not drivel. Being given or loaned a book should be a rewarding, fruitful exercise, in which I discover writers new to me, carefully curated by thoughtful, well-read friends and relatives. For example, I recently read The Diary and Letters of Etty Hillesum, which was a gift from a friend. Not only did this book introduce me to Rilke, but every page was thoughtful, clever and sad, and I would not have read it otherwise. Thirdly and finally, if the book turns out to be drivel after all, it’s important to be able to enumerate clearly and precisely the many and various ways in which it was drivel, so that the friend in question understands just how wrong they are and never lends me any drivel again. This requires me to read right to the end, possibly taking notes. This is the only reason I have read all thousand-odd pages of The Executioner’s Song, one of the dreariest experiences of my life. I therefore prepared to read every last paragraph of Hairy Pooter and the Total Insect Fail and posted a book to my then friend. Perhaps this was the beginning of the end of our friendship (inseparable at school and in touch regularly throughout university and beyond, we no longer have anything to do with each other). A week went by and nothing arrived for me, so I emailed him. Where is that children’s book you were going to forcibly lend me? I said. He said, Ah. Well. Yes. The book you forced upon me arrived [notice how quickly he forgot the whole thing started with him forcing his book upon me], and I tried to read it.

The book I chose for my former friend was Bleak House. Dickens certainly has flaws (questionable attitudes to women; sentences longer than life itself; caricature as a default position; a total inability to let a moral lesson go unremarked, and so on), but let’s take a moment to recall the gloriously dank opening[6] of Bleak House. It is, famously, one of the great beginnings in literature (see Nothing but a Hound Dog for other spiffy opening lines), with its marvellous description of the suffocating fogs of the Thames: ‘Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.’ My favourite lines are these (only partly because they include a dinosaur):

As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holburn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

This splendid, sarcastic, swirling plug-hole of an opening[7] is also one of the reasons I chose Bleak House for my moronic former friend, reasoning that even if he felt he had to skip (say) some of Mrs. Jellyby’s twitterings later on, at least the first few pages would give him his second experience of Reading For Pleasure and he’d be into fun things like Plot and Character Development before he knew it. Yes, he would think to himself. A book. A big, fat, complicated book: suitable for a mature mind, demanding both concentration and engagement. A cast of thousands, full of ideas, intrigue, humour and mystery, plus a chap that spontaneously combusts and a load of funny names. A book indeed.

You tried to read it? I yelped at the screen, where his email crouched, embarrassed by its own existence. YOU’RE AN ADULT! I typed, pounding the keyboard much as a Megalosaurus might tenderise an intriguing meal by stomping it to death. You’re studying politics and philosophy! You’re reading lengthy, dry books full of complex ideas every day of the week! You tried to read it? Yes, he said. I tried. I managed ten pages before I lost the will to live. I didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t concentrate on sentences that long. I couldn’t remember who anyone was. I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me.

Thus, gentle reader, Harry Potter and the Mansplainer’s Tome never arrived, so the moment passed and I never read it. I am not sorry at all.

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[1] Based on the quality of the discussion that followed, the rest of the class didn’t feel the same sense of obligation. We never quite forgave each other for this mutual misunderstanding.

[2] I had even, God help me, waded through a considerable quantity of The Golden Bough, but I didn’t say so in case he asked me what it was about.

[3] I recommend this most highly, particularly if the winter is a pea-souper-ish one. One story per night, read last thing before bed in front of a roaring fire, with a hot, bitter cocoa to hand and a sleeping Hound on one’s lap, puts one in a splendid mood.

[4] He might have argued that, say, Truckers is clearly and explicitly aimed at younger readers (and no doubt he would have done, had he been familiar with the work of Terry Pratchett). He might have argued that all fantasy writing is for kids (it’s not, but no doubt he would have tried, had he known anything about the fantasy genre). He might have argued that the division between ‘children’s literature’ and ‘adult literature’ is a social construct, as meaningless to two people in their late teens as all the other divisions between ‘for kids’ and ‘not for kids’, but he didn’t make any of these points. Notice how his argument is limited at every turn by his total lack of reading and yet he continued to consider himself in a position to lecture me about books I should put in front of my face and into my brain for four entire years.

[5] I was a ravenous but less omnivorous reader at the time, confining myself almost exclusively to fiction, and I certainly hadn’t read or heard of Daniel Pennac’s Bill of Rights for readers. Had we known it, I was defending the first article (the right not to read), while my former friend was in some ways defending the last (the right to not defend your tastes). See both A ‘small mysterious corpus’ and Tom Sperlinger, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation (Winchester: Zero Books, 2014), pp. 49-51 for a discussion of Pennac’s Bill.

[6] Fellow subscribers might also recognise this as a quotation from Vagina Monthly.

[7] See above. It was a bumper issue, with an unusually generous centrefold and an excellent crossword (down clues only).

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Swear on the Heron

Recently, I bought a Sting album. In my defence, I’ve never pretended to have taste when it comes to popular music (see The uncharitable goat) and I don’t intend to apologise for this now. The album is Soul Cages, which is about the death of his father, and exactly what I wanted to listen to when my grandfather died in April (see Fatherlike He tends and spares us / All our fears and hopes He knows); moreover, Mad About You and All This Time are, whatever you might think of Sting and his works, bloody brilliant songs. Even so: Sting, for fuck’s sake. In recent times I have also developed a distressing interest in gardening, bought an extra-large handbag, and woken my husband up to rub my back, make me a hot-water bottle and then stuff it (the hot-water bottle) down my pyjamas. In short, I am entering the foothills of middle-age.

This is the not the disaster it may at first appear. Firstly, I’m married to a much younger man, which certainly takes the sting (<pounding of desk>) out of ageing. I was asked to present at a careers event at the university last year, alongside another freelancer, and when I was asked the obligatory ‘but what about your pension?’ question, I responded smugly that I was married to my pension.[1] Secondly, there is no rule that says middle age has to involve elasticated waists, twinsets or pearls. Nothing will induce me to dress as the fashion industry suggests middle-aged women should: a few months ago I bought a skirt in a print called something like Bugger Me, It’s The Circus, which is bright green with pink animals and acrobats all over it, and which I’m intending to wear with something unapologetically unsuitable. Owning the Hound, however, has forced me to make another sartorial choice that is unequivocally middle-aged, and which I’m still sad about: I own an anorak. It’s the same colour as a cagoule my mother used to wear to muck out the ducks, and I look depressingly like her in it. An anorak is terribly practical for dog-walking purposes: there are two capacious pockets more than large enough to take a poo-in-a-bag, and the Hound can be whisked into one’s arms away from the slavering jaws of other dogs without fear of ruining one’s arms and/or clothes. Nevertheless, the bloody thing is an anorak deep in its soul: shapeless, crackly and covered in zips. I wore it every day throughout the winter to walk the Hound, and now autumn is upon us with its mists and drizzle, the Mumnorak Returns.

Of course, the only people that see me in my Mumnorak are those that think the nature reserve is the place to be at 8am on a weekday with a one-eyed dog (see Dearer than Eyesight), and most of them are wearing horrible outerwear of their own and/or shouting ineffectually at their own dogs. I’ve noticed a distressing tendency to massively underestimate how responsive dogs are to commands. The Hound cannot be trusted off the lead, so he stays on it at all times. Other dogs that pay no mind whatever to their owners, however, are allowed to roam around freely.[2] The Hound also isn’t good with strangers and frequently attempts to perform a citizen’s arrest on various dishevelled persons passed on our morning walks. They are usually walking swiftly and stiffly, smelling powerfully of drugs, and such is the civic pride of the Hound that he cannot help but seize them by the trouser. He also can’t be trusted when we are alone: if I take my eye off him for a moment, he hurls himself, toddler-like, into either filth or mortal peril (or, most excitingly, both).[3] For example, we recently encountered a man walking through the nature reserve yelling about crystals, or so it seemed. It turned out that he wasn’t a drug addict at all (or if he is, crystal meth isn’t his thing); rather, he was looking for his wife’s chihuahua.[4] When I asked him to describe her, he replied, ‘she’s called Crystal, and she’s wearing a pink diamante collar. She’s just finished being in heat.’ While I tried to say something (anything) other than, ‘right, but what’s the dog like?’, the Hound cavorted cheerfully in a cowpat. On the way home, we met an Alsatian that looked at him in a funny way, so of course by the time we got back to the house, both our respective coats were covered in shit. His went under the tap and then in the washing machine, but the Mumnorak is so hateful that I didn’t even bother to brush it down.

I think the fact that I continue to hate the Mumnorak shows that I haven’t completely accepted my fate as a middle-aged woman, and yet the last twelve months have included another, even more portentous sign of impending senility: I have become a bird-watcher. The nature reserve in which the Hound and I take our daily constitutional is an extraordinary place. I have found the following things lurking in the hedge along the towpath: a dead rat; a dead skateboard; condoms, various; an empty box of chocolates (who eats Milk Tray by a canal?); and a selection of increasingly bizarre graffiti, my favourite of which reads simply ‘MALORY?’ (a difficult evening for the local Arthurian legend reading group, we can only assume). The nature reserve consists of a number of large, flood-prone fields with a brook running through them, various stagnant ditches bridged by narrow, slippery planks, and two tiny strips of green either side of the towpath. It is neither large nor unusual, and yet it holds an enormous amount of birdlife. I’m not doing anything clever involving hides, camouflage or bird-calls to see any of these animals; I don’t even own a pair of binoculars. I just walk with the Hound from our house to the nature reserve and around whichever bit seems to have fewer dogs and/or cows in it, and use my eyes. There are the usual suspects that one might expect to see on a tow-path (see Tales from the canal-bank) i.e. ducks, moorhens, pigeons and blackbirds. However, I’ve also seen two teeny-tiny male wrens fighting in mid-air, squeaking ferociously and trying to peck each other’s eyes out; many an encounter with kingfishers, either skimming along the water or doing little stretchy kneebends on twigs; umbrella-like herons; a Greater Spotted woodpecker banging his head against a tree; hunting kestrels; a jay and a green woodpecker taking turns to laugh at each other; and any number of sparrows, dunnocks, bluetits, wagtails and goldfinches.

So far, so middle-aged. Barring the waterfowl, I could probably achieve much the same list by hanging a couple of bird feeders in the garden and sitting still for a bit, except that there is also a hawk. Wait – did I say a hawk? There is a pair of hawks. There is a pair of hawks, with a nest, which I found, where they made a baby hawk. I say ‘hawk’ because they look superficially like buzzards, but the behaviour (hunting pigeons on the wing), territory (marshy fields)[5] and size difference are all wrong. I simply refer to the whole family as The Bird, and then disambiguate (‘I saw the Bird today. It was Her/Him/The Baby’). They are easily distinguished: He is chocolate brown, with a wingspan just under three feet. The Baby is much the same size and colour as Him, but flies like an idiot, wailing and perching forlornly in trees in the hope that the non-existent bunnies will shin up the trunk, tear themselves into shreds and press themselves into his beak.

68.Him
Him, January 2017

Female raptors are almost always larger than their mates, but the size differential here does my heart good: She must be at least half as big again as He is. She could bring down a gazelle. She could eat Him for breakfast, and I’m pretty sure she ate poor little Crystal. She is massive.

68.Her.jpg
Her (right, peeking coyly around a branch) and Him (left).

The only birds larger than Her on the nature reserve are the herons, stalking about like two pairs of chopsticks (one for the legs, one for the beak), and I’m living for the day when the Bird finally gets around to reading The King’s General and decides the herons are mocking Her with their disgracefully large wingspans, and might make an exciting meal.[6] The story that Robert of Artois insulted Edward III by serving him a roasted heron, as a way of insinuating that Edward was reluctant to invade France because he was a wet (rather than because, you know, France is huge and it might start the Hundred Years’ War) relies on the idea that herons are inherently timid.[7] Beaks prevent birds from expressing emotion with their faces, and yet herons manage to convey both sheepishness (‘sorry to be standing here in the canal again. I don’t know what to tell you’) and a powerful sense of menace (‘yes, I will be eating a live frog in just a moment!’).

The Hound has a vendetta against all birds of all sizes (except the Bird, presumably because he thinks She is a light aircraft). The reader will recall my earlier assertion that the Hound cannot be trusted, and here we come to the heart of the matter. This morning, as we were traversing one of the aforementioned narrow and slippery plank bridges that span the (surprisingly deep) ditches in the nature reserve, the Hound spotted a heron, about six feet away from us, standing quietly in the water. There was a tiny moment of stillness in which the heron, nonplussed by the Hound appearing above him on the bridge, looked both baffled and embarrassed. Then he unfolded himself and lurched into the air, flying right over our heads back towards the field we had just left. The Hound, who is an idiot, borked furiously, banged his eyeless side against me, borked some more, tangled his lead around my legs and skittered off the plank, thus pulling both of us straight into the ditch. I say ‘ditch’, but that suggests something relatively modest in size: it was five feet of filthy, duckweed-y water. The Hound scrambled out on his own, unimpeded by the lead and barely wet, whereas the only part of me that escaped was my right hand (I held the lead above the water heroically, like The Lady in the Really Dirty Lake). By some miracle, both keys and glasses were still on my person when I clambered out (the same couldn’t be said for my dignity); I hadn’t taken my phone; and it wasn’t actually the middle of a thunderstorm or a powercut. Otherwise, things were pretty bad: this bridge is the turning-around point on our favourite stick-gathering route i.e. about three miles from home. We walked it just as we were, wet through, squelching and foul. On arriving home, I had to prop my wellies upside down to drain by the front door, strip off everything in the porch and wash and feed the Hound before I could even make a start on getting myself clean, warm and dry. I literally picked duckweed out of my eyes, teeth, ears and bra. I have washed my hair three times, showered, bathed and cleaned my fingernails, but my arm still smells faintly of stagnant water. My new dungarees are ruined, and the not-at-all-hateful raincoat that I bought specifically to replace the Mumnorak, and which was carrying a full cargo of poo-in-a-bag at the time, will never be the same again. Much like Edward III, I swore on the heron.

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[1] Does your pension cuddle you and tell you how much fun you are? Thought not.

[2] Exhibit A: the massive fucking Doberman the Hound scared the crap out of in the first three weeks we had him. The damned thing cantered out of the mist like a black-and-tan one-headed Cerberus, the size of a pony and its owner nowhere to be seen. I picked the Hound up, which of course merely raised him to nose-level of this monster dog. Upon being sniffed, the Hound jack-knifed in my arms, caught the Doberman savagely by the ear and worried at it furiously, growling deep in his throat. The poor Doberman, surprised and horrified, yelped, ripped his ear out of Peco’s savage jaws and cantered back from whence it came, while the Hound borked triumphantly (‘and STAY out!’) and wagged his tail.

[3] Exhibit B: last week, while I gathered winter fu-u-el, Peco thought a swim (in a ditch, in September, while wearing his clean coat) might be fun. Little did I know this was merely the overture to today’s shenanigans.

[4] Remember when we used to say ‘chichihuahua’? Whatever happened to that?

[5] Other than pigeons, which must take an enormous amount of energy to catch and pluck, what the fuck are they eating? The ground is too wet for rabbits, and the kestrels eat all the small mammals. There are plenty of ducks that could be caught and eaten, but the preponderance of dog-walkers means that they spend their entire lives on the water, so unless the Bird snatches them right out of the canal, I don’t see how. Similarly, seagulls and rooks abound, but they mob the Bird whenever they can, and their (more vulnerable) nests only have delicious Bird-food chicks in them for a few weeks of the year. There are no other large predators (foxes, badgers) that might leave carcasses for them to pick at, and no lambs or other farm animals that might make suitable meals. They built the nest slowly and laboriously, so there must be food in the area. Pheasants? Cats? Unwary cyclists? I have so many questions.

[6] ‘[…] out of the darkening sky fell the dying heron and the blood-bespattered falcon, straight into the yawning crevice that opened out before me. I heard Richard shout, and a thousand voices singing in my ears as I fell.’ Daphne du Maurier, The King’s General (London: Arrow Books, 1946), p. 54.

[7] The teenage Edward is supposed to have sworn a vow on the heron that he would, in fact, pursue his claim to the throne in France (hence Jean Plaidy’s book The Vow on the Heron), which just goes to show that nothing good comes from encounters with herons.

 

 

 

Nothing but a Hound Dog

I love beginnings. In particular, I love the beginnings of books. The opening lines of almost any book tell you something worth knowing about the rest of it: done well, they are fascinating, tantalizing little grace notes that set you up beautifully for the rest of the book, just as an amuse-bouche sets one up for a delicious meal. Of course there are famously compelling opening lines such as those from The Go-Between,[1] Anna Karenina,[2] Pride and Prejudice[3] and so on, but wonderful beginnings are everywhere. My own personal favourite is found in Tom Robbins’s bonkers novel (is it a novel? It’s certainly writing) Still Life With Woodpecker. This book sprang into the world in the same year as I did, and begins thus: ‘If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.’[4]

Non-fiction has much to offer here too. The Austrian animal behaviourist Konrad Lorenz opens his book Man Meets Dog with a quotation from William Cowper’s ‘The Winter Walk at Noon’ and the following intriguing sentence: ‘Today for breakfast I ate some fried bread and sausage.’ Of course this immediately calls to mind sausages themselves, both real and literary (see W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Since’, as featured in Joining the Dots and Tales from the canalbank), but setting meat products aside, ‘Today for breakfast I ate some fried bread and sausage’ is a brilliant opening line, with no obvious connection to Lorenz’s chosen subject (‘the relationship between men and their domestic pets’, according to the back cover) and sets a charmingly familiar tone, even in translation. Lorenz goes on as follows:

Both the sausage and the lard came from a pig that I used to know as a dear little piglet. Once that stage was over, to save my conscience from conflict, I meticulously avoided any further acquaintance with that pig […] Morally it is much worse to wring the neck of a tame goose which approaches one confidently to take food from one’s hand than it is, at the expense of some physical effort and a great deal of patience, to shoot a wild goose which is fully conscious of its danger and, moreover, has a good chance of eluding it.[5]

Similarly, the Tiny Book Hound, Giant Bear and I are doing our best to set the right tone at the beginning of our relationship (see Dog Days). It’s a steep learning curve for all of us: the Hound has eight years of another owner’s priorities, smells and commands to unlearn (plus two confusing weeks in the shelter), and Giant Bear and I have never owned a pet together, although we both grew up with dogs (and lots of other creatures, in my case). Rescue dogs also bring their own unique challenges. The Hound is frightened of loud noises and towels, hates having his lead put on or his feet cleaned, and refuses to sleep in his basket at night. His ideal resting place is nestled against me on my pillow, where I can be unexpectedly licked in the face at 3am, but we have compromised on pretty much anywhere else on or in the bed. Occasionally, this means finding teeny-tiny paw-prints on the sheets (‘Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic Tiny Hound!’). He doesn’t smell, sheds very little and snores less than Giant Bear, and is thus a perfectly acceptable bedtime companion, but we both wonder how he will cope with (for example) being on the boat (see Tales from the canal-bank), where he will have to wear his harness at all times, the engine is deafening and the bed is four feet off the ground.

Meanwhile, we all continue to learn about each other, including the following Important Lessons from the last three weeks of dog ownership.

  1. The Hound is the only person in the house not that bothered about food.

I think he eats his breakfast and dinner mainly to please us. He likes cheese, and he likes liver treats, and he likes warm shreds of roast chicken, but I’m using the word ‘likes’ to convey the lukewarm nature of such feelings: he will eat these things and doesn’t seem to hate doing so. When we eat our own dinner, he sits on a chair or a lap, but this is so he can see what we’re doing: our food may be inches from his nose, but he’s not interested in eating it. I’ve eaten dog several times in China (it’s delicious) and I wonder what the Hound, an animal perfectly content to eat his own poo, would make of that. Recall Mungo Piers-Foley in Stiff Upper Lip lamenting that he had eaten a piece of horse and hadn’t even noticed until he received the bill.[6] Naturally, by the end of the essay he is enjoying elephant, flamingo and water-rat, among other things, and has learnt the essential lesson of Eating Abroad: ‘Once one leaves the Old Country, one achieves a kind of Universality, a Oneness with Nature. HERE EVERYTHING IS EDIBLE.'[7]

 2. The Hound doesn’t like me to attempt anything without his supervision.

As previously mentioned (see all my innards-related posts), I have chronic bowel disease as a legacy of work-related stress, and work from my lovely little blue office at home the majority of the time, which has what amounts to an en suite. I’m hesitant to declare myself expert at anything, but taking a shit is something I can do without assistance. The Hound has other ideas, however: if I shut him out, he barks and claws at the door; if I leave the door open, he sits as close to my feet as he can, gazing trustingly into my face with an expression of great concern and occasionally sneezing in what I assume he thinks is a supportive fashion.

3. After three weeks with us, he is already better behaved than the dogs next door.

The Hound is allowed to bark at the dogs next door, provided he stops when asked. Bearing in mind that when he feels threatened by a bigger dog, the Hound forgets entirely how frightening he finds (say) agricultural noises on the Archers and clearly thinks he is a tiger that could rip the throat out of a Doberman (see Swear on the Heron for an account of how he tried to do this exact thing), we have decided that barking at other dogs is a normal behavioural whatnot, allowing him to defend both us and his territory. Once I have hauled him away from growling and scrabbling at the ground when meeting a larger dog on our morning walk, he swaggers off, tail wagging and still barking threats at nothing, to show me what a big brave dog he is: woe betide a stick if he comes upon it in such a mood. The dogs next door are only slightly bigger than him, but in his mind they are the enemy at the gate (plus, I fucking hate the dogs next door. If ever dogs deserved to be barked at, these are they). If they start barking while I’m working in the office, I’ve discovered that opening the window (which is low enough that he can get his front paws up on the sill to see and sniff outside) and allowing him to bark out of it (so to speak) works a treat. When I’ve had enough, I shut the window, congratulate him on some excellent barking and the vanquishing of his enemies, and he goes back to his basket in triumph. It’s harder in the garden when only a flimsy fence separates them, but even here we have breakthroughs, as yesterday afternoon showed:

Dogs next door: Yap yap yap!
Hound: Bork bork bork!
Dogs next door : YAP YAP YAP we’re so fucking annoying YAP YAP YAP!
Woman next door: Be quiet, Shithose! Bad dog! Fuckweasel! FUCKWEASEL! NO![8]
Dogs next door: YAP YAP YAP! Yappity-yap!
Hound (don’t talk back): BORK BORK BORK!
Woman next door: Bad dogs!
Dogs next door: YAP YAP YAP!
Hound: BORK BORK BORK why don’t you dig a hole, crawl under the fence, come over here and say that? BORK BORK BORK!
Me: That’s enough, Hound.
Hound <immediately stops barking; ignores dogs next door who continue to yap and snarl and hurl themselves against the fence; gives me his ‘I’m the best dog in the world’ grin; and calmly asks to be let back into the house, where I reward him with a liver treat the size of his face>

 4. No amount of poo bags is ever enough.

The Hound is tiny, even for a Jack Russell; in fact, he’s so tiny that we think he might actually be something called a Russell Terrier instead (essentially, a miniature Jack Russell). How is it, then, that he can produce his own bodyweight in poo on a daily basis? Last week I congratulated myself on my foresight in taking two poo bags on our morning walk, and sure enough there were two poos. This morning, I took two poo bags even though he had done a massive knee-trembler[9] before we left the house. More prepared than a Boy Scout, we wrestled briefly over the lead and set off towards the tow-path; I was even thinking that he might not poo at all on our walk (or indeed ever again), so gargantuan was his first offering. Gentle reader, there were three further poos. The Hound is currently sleeping in his basket, a withered husk. So Kam die Literacystrumpet auf den Hound.

———————————————————–

[1] I think it goes something like ‘The past is a foreign country: it takes ages to get there and the food isn’t as good as you remember.’

[2] ‘Happy families are boring, which is why everyone in this book makes terrible choices and ends up sad and alone.’

[3] ‘A man in possession of an unfeasibly large amount of money and a massive house (but no job) simply must get married, because otherwise he might spend his money on billiard tables, waistcoats and moustache wax and really what are women even for otherwise?’

[4] Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker: A Sort of a Love Story (London: Corgi, 1980), p.9.

[5] Konrad Lorenz, Man Meets Dog (London: Penguin, 1980. Translated by Marjorie Kerr Wilson), pp.9-10. The book was originally published in German as So Kam der Mensch auf den Hund and features delightful Thurber-esque illustrations by both Annie Eisenmenger and the author.

[6] Lawrence Durrell, ‘Something à la carte?’, in Stiff Upper Lip (London: Faber and Faber, 1958), p.22.

[7] Ibid., p.25.

[8] Giant Bear says we agreed to refer to Fuckweasel as Piss-for-Brains, but potato potato.

[9] Frank McCourt coined this expression in Angela’s Ashes to describe his parents having sex against a wall, but I make no apologies for reusing it here. If one is stupid enough to speculate about one’s parents having sex in print, one has to take the consequences.

Tales from the canal-bank

It is a great loss to me (and, I venture to suggest, the world) that I don’t run a creative writing class. If I did, however, this week I would be asking my students to pick one of the following items, all of which I have observed at one time or another on, in or in the vicinity of a canal, and use it as the starting point for a short story.

We begin with items found floating in the water. Pearson’s Canal Companion suggests that canal flotsam is not entirely savoury, and he’s not wrong.[1] Here’s an arresting image from a passage on Langley Maltings (Titford Canal):

The water, too, seemed cleaner, as clear as a see-through blouse; though the contents of the canal bed thus revealed were not quite so desirable as the analogy suggests.[2]

Item one is a dead seagull, frozen in a position that, in conjunction with a set of humming overhead power lines, suggested it had been electrocuted (or, at the very least, greatly surprised) before flopping into the filthy water, wings forever stiffly raised mid-flap – but there could be so many other explanations, each ripe with Adventure and Plot. Item two is a whole, unpeeled and (apart from being in the canal) apparently sound onion, which reminded my husband of a lettuce (also whole, and also apparently fine) he once saw in the canal, forlornly bobbing along singing a song. This one almost makes sense, since lettuce is 100% useless (see Home Economics), but surely one knows that at the point of purchase? One doesn’t buy a lettuce in good faith and then, a few hours later, suddenly experience the stunning epiphany, crashing over one in a chilly wave of horror, that lettuce has nothing of value to contribute to the kitchen.[3] ‘Begone, lying vegetable!’ cried no-one ever, hurling the wretched thing out into the void:[4] one knows before one wastes one’s hard-earned cash that lettuce is Not Food in any meaningful way. A discarded onion, which could have formed the base of innumerable meals, makes no sense. Was it a missile in a heated domestic argument? Did it jump? Was it pushed? Endless possibilities unfold before us.

20160812_195644
A flock of filthy philanderers begging for burnt bacon bits

Our third floating item is a sex toy, last seen gently drifting towards Dudley like the world’s nastiest message in a bottle.[5] From a distance, it appeared to be common or garden white goods, such as I regularly see from the towpath on my morning walk, which also happens to be along a canal. On closer inspection, it appeared that an enraged sex fiend had chopped a plastic women into sections and then discarded what one would have thought was the most useful part, which resolutely refused to sink. This should not surprise anyone who has thrown things into a canal: Giant Bear and I have learnt from experience that the more embarrassing the item, the less likely it is to sink. In our case, two strings of high sausages haunted us for an entire evening. We couldn’t fling them into the undergrowth on the bank in case a dog ate them and was horribly poisoned; in our food bin they would have made the boat stink; and putting them back in the fridge seemed equally mad. We had just moored in an absolutely beautiful spot, as close as we could get to one of the moorings from our honeymoon. As we opened the canal-side hatch, a kingfisher zipped into view, settled on a branch just long enough for both of us to cry, ‘A kingfisher!’ and then was gone again. In other words, it was a moment both idyllic and restful, spoilt by having to work out what on earth to have for dinner now that there were no viable sausages. Finally, we were tired from a long day of locks (me) and boat-driving (Giant Bear), and simply didn’t have the patience to wander up and down the towpath in search of another bin. There seemed no satisfactory solution (“and the canal is full of shit anyway”, we reasoned, recalling several of the items already mentioned), so into the canal with you, where, oh fantastic, you are producing enough noxious gases to float about accusingly for several hours. Fish appear and take a few exploratory nibbles; moorhens peck at you, but you’re far too gross even for things that live in a canal cheek-by-jowl with electrocuted seagulls and discarded sexual aids. Other boats charge past (rather than on tick-over, as they should be), but, how wonderful, you bob up in the wake, battered and intestinal, but undaunted, reminiscent of an unfeasibly lavish greyish-pinkish bowel movement and definitely no closer to sinking. You catch on an overhanging bramble for a few excitingly yucky minutes, but then drift brazenly back into the centre of the canal for all to see. Overnight, mercifully, you vanish, but we are both convinced that you are not gone, but lurking, in the reeds or under the boat, like some mottled sausage-y sea-serpent.

Item four is a rat I have seen many times on the canal at home, who has learnt that a local gentleman in his twilight years likes to sit in a certain spot and feed the pigeons. Pigeons are messy eaters and leave more than enough for a ratty breakfast. This particular rat has been known to wear a little Lucozade bottle-top on his head (I assume it was sticky the first time he encountered it), and thus is known as Lucozade Hat Rat. I venture that this is a rat with a rich and varied existence, with the whole canal to explore (graffiti under bridges! Discarded toasters! That guy who is always in a tremendous hurry and smells of hash!) and his rakish head-gear to distinguish him from what must be literally thousands of other rats in the local area. An updated Tales from the Riverbank featuring Lucozade Hat Rat is just as likely to become a quirky bestseller as any of the things that actually do become quirky bestsellers.

Item five is non-floating, but no less poignant for it: a tableau of a depressed-looking ginger horse with a sore foot (back right), languishing alone in a benettled field. In the foreground, a partially-sucked mint humbug sits on a fencepost, quietly melting in the August sunshine. Was it offered to the horse, mumbled and then rejected? Was it left by a kind passer-by for him to take at his convenience? Perhaps the horse sees and smells the sweet, but his sore foot prevents him limping over to the fencepost to claim it and he is horribly tantalised by its tempting brown-and-fawn stripes. Perhaps he is faking a sore foot in the hope of blackmailing kind passers-by into leaving him mints, which he hoovers up quietly at night, surefooted and sneaky in the darkness. Perhaps the horse hates mints; perhaps he hates passers-by, too. Here, one might pause to give some thought to the protagonist of one’s canal-based tale. There is always the option of taking a cue from Tarka the Otter, Watership Down et al. and basing a story around (say) a family of ducklings, a deceitful horse or indeed a seagull tragically cut off in his prime. There was, for example, that time I rescued a mouse in imminent danger of drowning in the boiling floodwaters of a nearby lock. Surely he returned to his nest that evening and regaled Mrs Mouse with a tall tale of raging waters, foul smells, mysterious engine noises and then –lo!– a stick-based miracle? Or one might choose to write a terrifying horror story, starring one of the many dogs that haunt the canal, a surprising number of which can’t cope with locks, boats, other dogs or Being Outside. Think of the terrors these animals have to endure. The Unattainable Sausages! The Place That Was Dark And Barking Made No Difference! Everything Is Floaty And Weird! ARF! ARF! This year we met a couple with a large boxer, which the chap cheerfully informed me was ruining their holiday. ‘If we go into a lock and leave her on board, she howls, shakes and pees on the floor,’ he said in an almost incomprehensible Birmingham accent, shaking her lead belligerently; she ignored this, continuing to focus all her energies on Barking At The Canal. ‘If we take her off the boat, she tangles her lead around my legs while I’m doing the lock. She’s welcome to drown anytime she likes.’

Students with some knowledge of canals might choose to show off their mastery of canal-related terminology (windlass, cill, pound, winding hole etc.), and model their prose style upon that of Pearson’s Canal Companion, which is certainly idiosyncratic. Consider, for example, Pearson’s description of Holt Fleet on the River Severn (‘A rash of caravan parks and shanty-like chalets mar otherwise unspoilt riverside meadows for everyone but their proud owners’);[6] or the following comment on the Birmingham Canal Navigation:

So what do you think of it so far? […] Are you under its spell, or are you under psychoanalysis, still hyperventilating from its fulminating blend of inspirational industrial heritage and sheer downright ugliness?[7]

One could do worse that to cast a canal gnome as the hero of our tale. The Canal and River Trust volunteers as they are more properly known are easily identified via their blue polo shirts and bright orange life-jackets; they are almost always wiry middle-aged men with Midlands accents (‘Orroight?’), knowledgeable, charming and name-badged. One exchanges the same pieces of information with all canal gnomes: yes, it is a pretty boat; yes, it is a nice-sounding engine; yes, my husband is driving it jolly well; yes, the water is low/high today; yes, the ‘missus’ has certainly drawn the short straw, walking miles in the lovely countryside along the towpath and pausing only to open and close locks, rather than standing still for hours in a cloud of diesel smoke and taking responsibility for anything bad that might happen to the boat; and what a beautiful/awful day it is. Canal gnomes help with locks whether one likes it or not, and admire Giant Bear’s driving, but more importantly for our purposes here, I bet they’ve seen it all: dead sheep the size of mattresses; enormously fat boaters bending the lock beams with their monstrous buttocks; broken paddles, lost windlasses, abandoned dogs; tipsy lone boaters leaving their vessels to fend for themselves while they man the lock; fisticuffs between anglers, boaters, walkers and kayakers all scrapping over the same stretch of duck-infested water; narrowboats grounded, overturned, sunk and on fire.[8]

Finally, there is the genre of our putative short story to consider. I suggest that canals are under-used locations in murder mysteries. Susan Hill uses a riverbank in her Lafferton detective novels; Colin Dexter makes excellent use of canals in The Wench is Dead; and my own humble murder mystery is set a few feet from a tow-path (and speaks of more than one suspicious death that may or may not have taken place in that general area). However, no mystery writer I’m aware of, has as yet made full use of the possibilities offered by a canal tunnel. Canal tunnels are dark, noisy, completely unlit except by the lights of passing boats, and sometimes have narrow walkways along one side, which cry out as places to dump a body (possibly of a person; possibly a large female boxer with a lead wrapped around her neck). The murderer would, naturally, be found out several days later, however. Experience has shown that when he or she least expected it and was peacefully feeding bacon to a passing paddling of perverts, the bloated corpse would loom out of the brown water, bump (softly, sausage-like) against his or her boat and then refuse to sink.

 


[1] The humble duck turns out to be a depraved sexual predator upon further investigation. Mallards have explosive corkscrew penises, covered with spikes and almost as long again as their bodies. Their preferred method of sexual advance is to quack madly, ambush a female duck and grab her by the neck before deploying their terrifying weapon.

[2] J.M. Pearson, Pearson’s Canal Companion: Black Country Canals, Stourport Ring, Birmingham Canal Navigations (Central Waterways Supplies, Rugby, sixth edition 2003), p. 23.

[3] I don’t even put it in a BLT anymore; avocado, cucumber or more bacon are far better options.

[4] This is actually a jolly satisfying part of being on a narrowboat. Washing up is so much more fun when crumbs etc. can be simply tipped out of the window for waterfowl to squabble over. Thus does one make instructive discoveries, such as that ducks don’t like mushrooms.

[5] Pearson writes that ‘there is about the Dudley Canals an independence of style and spirit’, but I don’t think discarded plastic pelvises were what he had in mind. Pearson’s Canal Companion, p. 63.

[6] Pearson’s Canal Companion, Stourport, p. 36.

[7] Pearson’s Canal Companion, Stourport, p. 17.

[8] One of the boats a lock or so ahead of us got stuck on the cill (the lip at either end of the lock that the gates seal against) and partially grounded while they waited for the rising water to lift them away from it. We worked this out eventually, but there is no standardised system of hand gestures between boaters, and so one bellows emptily above the noise of boat engines and the rushing of mighty waters. I’ve often wondered why the canal gnomes haven’t yet given their minds to devising a system of approved hand gestures to convey a range of common messages to other boats, such as ‘Help help I’m aground’, ‘Do you have an up-to-date copy of Pearson’s Canal Companion?’ and ‘My name is Inigo Montoya. You stole our lock. Prepare to die!’